Monday, 28 March 2011

Australia: Land of Surprises

Reading and blogging on the dreams and visions of Gary Johns over the weekend made me think, not for the first time, of one of my favourite little pieces of arcane literature.

When my family emigrated from England in 1967, the Australian Immigration Department gave us a little booklet called Australia: Land of Surprises.  This was specifically written for English immigrant children by a person called Carol Odell, with illustrations by Emilie Beuth, to cushion us from the culture shock we would experience in this strange new land.  The book opens with a grand promise.

Australia: What does it make you think of first? Kangaroos, sheep and the wide, open spaces?  If it does, this book is going to be full of surprises; but, when you have read it, you will know what Australia is really like.

It then lists 31 surprising facts about Australia.  Some of these were indeed surprising to us.  Some would also have been quite surprising to long-standing Australian residents.  Amidst the wonders of inverted seasons, sandy beaches and a warm climate (Surprise Number Five: it is always summer somewhere in Australia) are some absolute gems.

Surprise Number Six: Hardly anyone owns a kangaroo or has one for a pet

Surprise Number Ten: Steak for breakfast.
...Steak, lamb chops or lamb's fry are often eaten for breakfast, usually with fried eggs.

I'm still waiting for mine.

Surprise Number Eighteen: Plays written specially for children.
There are sometimes as many as four plays at a time written and produced specially for children, at different theatres in the cities...

Surprise Number Twenty-Eight: There are no dangerous animals in Australia.

Apart from snakes, that is.  And you never see them.

Amidst all this hilarity there are two entries about Aboriginal people.  Surprise Number Twenty-Two is relatively innocuous and even partly true: Aborigines paint on bark instead of paper. 

Surprise Number Twenty-Four, on the other hand, is a real doozy.

Surprise Number Twenty-Four: You will rarely see an Aboriginal in the city or suburbs.
Aboriginals prefer to live far away in the inland of Australia, where their ancestors have lived for hundreds of generations.  Very few want to live in the cities.  However, their culture - mysterious and ancient - has been reflected in Australian art, music and books.

Now here  is some Whiteman's Dreaming, or perhaps just whitewash.  We found the observable part of this "surprise" to be true.  The only Aboriginal people we saw in our childhood were the man who sold boomerangs at La Perouse, and later on the drunks in Musgrave Park.  As for the rest, we had no way of checking, because there were no Aboriginal people around to ask. 

So it was more than a decade before I got to university and people started to tell me the truth.  Of course most Aboriginal people, like the European invaders who came later, chose to live near the coast, where there was plenty of food and water.  Even once the British invaders started building their cities on the riverbanks they still stayed there, alternately trying to live by traditional means amidst the destruction, and working for or begging off the white people for pitiful rations of basic foodstuffs.

Then, in the years before and after 1900, most of them were forcibly removed from urban areas and confined to seperate missions.  Their movements were controlled.  They could be sent from one mission to another on the whim of the so-called "Protector".  Married couples could be seperated on the same whim.  Aboriginal people needed a special permit to get married, own property or live in an urban area, and this could be revoked at any time.  The majority of their wages were "held in trust" on their behalf - many are still fighting for the money to be returned.

These laws were still in place in 1967, even as we were being handed this book and welcomed to a country of racial harmony, inhabited in its remote regions by happy but mysterious ancients who painted on bark and for some strange reason preferred to live in the desert.  I assume no-one thought to give them a copy of Australia: Land of Surprises.  If they had, surprise would almost certainly have been the mildest of their reactions.

1 comment:

dd said...

Surprise Number Twenty-Eight: There are no dangerous animals in Australia!!!!!
They forgot crocs & spiders!

And the most dangerous animal of all - Man!!